Zarah Leander (15 March 1907 – 23 June 1981) was a Swedish actress and singer.
Leander began her career in the late 1920s, and by the mid-1930s her success in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, led to invitations to work in the United States. Leander was reluctant to relocate her children, and opted to remain in Europe, and from 1936 was contracted to work for the German Universum Film AG (UFA) while continuing to record songs. Leander later noted that while her films were successful, her work as a recording artist was more profitable.
As a result of her controversial choice to work for the state-owned UFA in Adolf Hitler's Germany, her films and song lyrics were viewed by some as propaganda for the Nazi cause, although she took no public political position. Leander was strongly criticized as a result, particularly in Sweden where she returned after her Berlin home was bombed during an air raid. Initially she was shunned by much of the artistic community and public in Sweden, and found herself unable to resume her career after the Second World War. It was several years before she could make a comeback in Sweden, and she would remain a figure of public controversy for the rest of her life.
She was born as Sara Stina Hedberg in Karlstad. While Zarah Leander's career in the Third Reich has been criticized, rumors nevertheless erroneously implied that Zarah was of Jewish heritage. According to her son Göran, his mother's family, going back through generations, were from the Swedish provinces of Dalarna and Värmland.
Although Zarah Leander studied piano and violin as a small child, and sang on stage for the first time at the age of six, she initially had no intention of becoming a professional performer and led an ordinary life for several years. As a teenager she lived two years in Riga (1922–1924), where she learned German, took up work as a secretary, married Nils Leander (1926), and had two children (1927 and 1929). However, in 1929 she was engaged, as an amateur, in a touring cabaret by the entertainer and producer Ernst Rolf and for the first time sang "Vill ni se en stjärna," ('Do you want to see a star?') which soon would become her signature tune.
In 1930, she participated in four cabarets in the capital, Stockholm, made her first records, including a cover of Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again", and played a part in a film. However, it was as "Hanna Glavari" in Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow that she had her definitive break-through (1931). By then she had divorced Nils Leander. In the following years, she expanded upon her career and made a living as an artist on stage and in film in Scandinavia. Her fame brought her proposals from the European continent and from Hollywood, where a number of Swedish actors and directors were working.
In the beginning of the 1930s she performed with the Swedish revue artist, producer and songwriter Karl Gerhard who was a prominent anti-Nazi. He wrote a song for Zarah Leander, "I skuggan av en stövel" (In the shadow of a boot), in 1934 which strongly condemned the persecution of Jews in Nazi-Germany.
Zarah Leander opted for an international career on the European continent. As a mother of two school-age children, she ruled out a move to America. In her view it was, most of all, too insecure. She feared the consequences, should she bring the children with her such a great distance and subsequently be unable to find employment. Despite the political situation, Austria and Germany were much closer, and Leander was already well-versed in German.
A second breakthrough, by contemporary measures her international debut, was the world premiere (1936) of Axel an der Himmelstür at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, directed by Max Hansen. It was a parody on Hollywood and not the least a parody of the German Marlene Dietrich, who had left a Europe marked by Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. It was followed by the Austrian film Premiere, in which she played the role of a successful cabaret star.
Eventually she returned to performing throughout Europe, but was unable to equal the level of success she had previously achieved. She spent her later years in retirement in Stockholm, and died there at the age of 74.
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